A few days after Jesus Christ ascended to heaven in 31 AD, when the Apostles had gathered with many others in Jerusalem to observe the Day of Pentecost, unusual things began to happen. “And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them” (Acts 2:1–3).
It was obvious to everyone that something extraordinary was happening. But this was just the beginning, as God used the wind and fire to bring many together for what was coming next: “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
Was this the same speaking in tongues that many Pentecostal churches practice today? Was it a kind of frenzied gibberish, impossible for others to understand? As we will see, it definitely was not.
The Tongues Were Understood
Continuing in Acts, we read, “And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:5–6). Not only were Christ's disciples not speaking gibberish, but every person heard them speak in the language in which the listener was born (v. 8). Notice that the miracle appears to have been as much in the hearing as in the speaking.
It is interesting to examine the Greek words used here. The word for “tongue” in verse four is glossa, which means the language or dialect used by a particular people, distinct from that of other nations. In verse six, the word for “language” is dialektos, from which we get the English word dialect, meaning the tongue or language peculiar to any people. Both words imply a known language—not a strange-sounding, incomprehensible utterance.
Yes, this was an extraordinary event unlike anything that had happened before. This miracle alone would have been an impressive display of God’s power, but there was much more to it. In this, as in everything God does, there was a purpose.
To understand the purpose of speaking in tongues on the Day of Pentecost, let us go back to the circumstances of the Holy Day. At Pentecost, many Jews from different regions, and even from different countries, traveled to Jerusalem. No single language could have called them together, and most would not on their own have chosen to hear the Apostle Peter preach. But drawn together by excitement at the sound of rushing wind and tongues of fire where Christ’s disciples were gathered, they were moved to proclaim that “we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11). Thus, the purpose of this miracle was revealed—preaching the wonderful works of God. Not only did people understand what was said; they were also convicted by Peter’s powerful sermon—the catalyst for about 3,000 people to repent and be baptized. This was no purposeless spectacle!
Because of the incredible events of that day, the Church had an enthusiastic beginning. Speaking in tongues played a vital role in God’s will being accomplished.
We see a similar purpose in Acts’ two other accounts of speaking in tongues. Both occasions show no similarity to how “tongues” are commonly misused today.
The first of these occurred when the Spirit moved Peter to visit the Roman centurion Cornelius’ house after seeing the vision of unclean meats (Acts 10:17–23). After Peter proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ’s message to all in the household—both Jews and Gentiles—the Bible says that “the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word” (v. 44). The Jews who were with Peter were amazed that the Holy Spirit was being given to Gentiles. What’s more, they heard those on whom the Spirit was poured “speak with tongues and magnify God.” (v. 46). This was not incomprehensible babbling by people who worked themselves into a furor. On the contrary, what was said through the tongues was understood and edifying to the listeners.
The other incident occurred when the Apostle Paul visited Ephesus and found that some newly baptized converts had never heard of the Holy Spirit. After Paul laid his hands on them, they received God’s Spirit and “spoke with tongues and prophesied” (Acts 19:6). The Greek word for “prophesied” can mean to break forth under sudden impulse in lofty discourse or to teach, refute, reprove, admonish, or comfort others. This too implies that what was said was understandable and helpful to those hearing, not pointless gibberish.
From these accounts in Acts, we see that there are at least three common factors when people spoke in tongues: It occurred at the giving of the Holy Spirit, there was always a group gathered, and what was said was profitable to the listeners.
Paul’s Instruction to the Corinthians
Speaking in tongues was apparently somewhat common in the first-century Church. Paul referred to it as one of God’s gifts in 1 Corinthians 12, alongside gifts of faith, healing, and interpreting tongues (v. 10).
However, Paul gave some pointed instructions to those who were blessed with this gift. First, he wrote that prophesying is better than speaking in tongues. “Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.... He who speaks in a tongue edifies himself, but he who prophesies edifies the church” (1 Corinthians 14:1, 4). The difference between speaking in tongues and prophesying is that those who prophesy don’t require interpreters. Since tongues involved a language unknown to the speaker, it couldn’t help anyone listening if it wasn’t understood. Paul goes on to say that “I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification” (v. 5).
Perhaps Paul felt the need to emphasize this point so strongly because speaking in tongues was so dramatic and impressive. No doubt many who had this gift thought it was the most important gift one could have. It must have been a heady experience—imagine suddenly speaking through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in a language unknown to you. But Paul admonished that everything should be done to help others.
So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner to me. Even so you, since you are zealous for spiritual gifts, let it be for the edification of the church that you seek to excel (vv. 9–12).
Paul also pointed out that speaking in tongues was primarily meant to reach non-members, as was prophesied in Isaiah. “In the law it is written: ‘With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; and yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,’ says the Lord. Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe” (vv. 21–22).
Paul contrasted the gifts of prophecy and of tongues to show that hearers would get more out of what they could understand. But the combination of the two gifts could be a powerful witness to an unbeliever, possibly to the point of repentance. “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an uninformed person comes in, he is convinced by all, he is convicted by all. And thus the secrets of his heart are revealed; and so, falling down on his face, he will worship God and report that God is truly among you” (vv. 23–25).
Additionally, Paul stressed that the church service was to be conducted in an organized manner, and that one with the gift of tongues should not speak if no one could interpret:
How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God.... For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints (vv. 26–28, 33).
The point is clear: Speaking in tongues was not meant to be a purposeless show, but a gift used to help others, especially unbelievers. In short, it was another method of furthering the Gospel.
Why don’t we speak in tongues in the Church today? Because God has additional methods of preaching the Gospel, as His servants can now use technology to fulfill the purpose formerly achievable only through tongues. With the tools of mass communication we can send out telecasts, radio broadcasts, and the written word translated into different languages with an ease that was not available to people in the first century.
Remember, too, that Jesus was starting His Church then. There was incredible excitement for those who were witnesses of these miracles—so much so that there was no small stir created wherever Christ inspired His followers to go. It was an effective way for the Gospel to have a deep impact on those who heard it and saw the miracles that accompanied it.
As we have seen, speaking in tongues was a powerful tool that God used to bring many to repentance. Those who had this gift did not experience the same out-of-control display of emotional fervor that comes upon many in some religious circles today. God is not capricious—He has a purpose for what He does. He uses different methods at different times, but His purpose is the same. Let us be thankful that we have an opportunity to be a part of that purpose for this age in whatever way He chooses.